Cancelled ferry sailings are a symptom of a longstanding problem in the marine industry. It’s only going to get worse.
Worker shortages are now endemic in the industry—but warnings started decades ago Part five of our series, Pay Check
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Worker shortages are now endemic in the industry—but warnings started decades ago Part five of our series, Pay Check
Worker shortages are now endemic in the industry—but warnings started decades ago Part five of our series, Pay Check
After BC Ferries cancelled two sailings between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland on August 4, 2021, its president and CEO Mark Collins issued a statement pinning the service disruptions on crew shortages. Three officers had called in sick, and replacements couldn’t be found on short notice.
BC Ferries was in the process of recruiting 60 officers and 50 other employees for key positions to create redundancy in the system. But the company was struggling to fill those positions. Qualified workers were “very difficult to find,” Collins said, partly due to a global mariner shortage.
The global mariner shortage isn’t new, it’s just being newly felt by the public. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, disrupting supply chains and transportation services.
By the time the omicron wave hit in late 2021, BC Ferries hadn’t made sufficient progress in its recruitment. In the span of a few months, crew shortages led to dozens of cancelled sailings.
Compounding the problem, BC Ferries had to place about 150 employees on unpaid leave in early 2022 for their failure to comply with the covid-vaccine requirement for shipboard personnel. Staffing shortages at the end of January cause service changes on three routes, including the Horsehoe Bay/Departure Bay route. (The company says 95 percent of its workforce is fully vaccinated.)
Shipboard employees undergo specialized training. They can’t be replaced by just anyone looking for a job. Captains and chief engineers who work on the BC coast require about 15 years of education and experience. Even catering attendants need training in firefighting, survival craft proficiency, first aid, and passenger-safety management.
BC Ferries has had to get creative to compensate for the crew shortages. On certain routes it has contracted with water taxis to shuttle passengers to their destinations. It has also reached out to retired mariners, hoping to entice them back to work.
“I got called back two weeks ago after being retired for a year,” someone recently posted on a private Facebook group for BC Ferries alumni. A captain who retired several years ago is reportedly back on the job, working Route 20. Several licensed mariners have been pulled out of retirement to staff Island Class vessels, and retired engineers are being offered jobs. For some retired mariners whose certificates have expired, the company has even offered to pay their renewal fees. Not all retirees have been eager to come back to work, however. “My heart is not in it anymore,” one commented.
Other stop-gap measures taken by the company have had the potential to negatively impact morale—and to jeopardize passenger and crew safety, according to one ship’s officer, who requested anonymity. In an email to Capital Daily, the officer said that BC Ferries has called employees back to work on their days off and denied vacation-time requests.
“Our job often entails stresses and hours that often require extended periods of rest to fully recuperate,” he wrote, adding that fatigued personnel can create dangerous situations on ships.
A link between mariner fatigue and safety is well established. Major maritime accidents that have been attributed to fatigue include a coal ship gouging the Great Barrier Reef in 2010 and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989, which emptied 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William sound with devastating consequences for wildlife. More recently and closer to home, a second mate fell asleep while maneuvering the Nathan E. Stewart through BC’s Central Coast. The vessel ran aground in 2016, spilling 110,000 litres of diesel fuel into Heiltsuk territorial waters and contaminating the Nation’s food supply.
“We endeavor to accommodate all time-off requests from our staff, however it’s not always possible,” BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said in an email. “We are always concerned about the health and wellness of our valued staff.”
As would be expected with a global mariner shortage, service disruptions aren’t unique to BC Ferries. Washington State Ferries, for example, recently announced that it wouldn’t resume its Anacortes-Sidney route this spring and summer because of crew shortages.
But critics say BC Ferries has missed opportunities over the years to gird itself for what it should have seen coming.
The company has done “too little, too late” to prepare for the labour shortage, the officer wrote to Capital Daily. “I predict more canceled sailings in the future.”
Adam was on the other side of the world, living the Navy dream: sailing from exotic port to exotic port, taking part in maneuvers with foreign navies, waving the Canadian flag for the world to see.
But the world passed by without much notice from him.
“I didn’t get to see most of it,” he says.
For most of that time, Adam (whose name has been changed because he is not authorized to speak publicly) was below decks. During the seven-month-long deployment, he barely stepped foot onshore.
For months on end, as the HMCS Calgary plied the world’s oceans, the entire crew was stuck on board as COVID precautions closed ports to visitors. So for the sailors on the ship, many of whom signed up for the promise of adventure and travel, work was the only thing to do.
“You’re dealing with the same thing over and over again, like Groundhog Day,” he says.
The repetition and enclosure started to get to him. He became withdrawn and stopped communicating with his family. His relationship with his girlfriend suffered.
When he got home, he started asking for more opportunities to stay ashore—anything to keep himself off the ship.
Fewer people than in previous generations are attracted to the isolating experience of going to sea, and marine-industry wages haven’t kept up with the times. Better money can be found onshore. Even the Navy, which can offer pensions, housing, spousal benefits, and more, is seeing a severe shortage of personnel that in some cases has curtailed the activities of its ships.
“We're seeing shortages in all areas, and that is a result of the pandemic and a result of the evolving economy as well: the fact that there are a lot of job opportunities for a lot of the people who come out of the military with a lot of great training and skills,” Rear-Admiral Angus Topshee, the Esquimalt-based commander of the Pacific Fleet, told Capital Daily in September.
Topshee recalls a particular year in which the Navy lost a number of sailors because BC Ferries was in need of engine room workers.
“You can get really, almost, pessimistic because, ‘oh my god, BC Ferries just took five people we were really counting on as part of the succession plan,’” he says.
Andrew Liebmann, the interim dean of the marine program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, who got his own start in maritime trades through the Navy reserves, doesn’t see a direct bleed of people from one part of the marine industry to another; for starters, one set of training doesn’t necessarily translate to the other. When people are ready to leave the Navy, many are at an age where they are close to retirement and not eager to re-train. Meanwhile, the industry has been slow to groom replacements for its aging workforce.
Liebmann says the global seafarer shortage is partly the result of a “demographic time bomb going off.”
That’s part of a trend across the industry.
“For all the boomers retiring,” he says, “there’s not enough people in the cohort behind them to fill their spots.”
In recent years, the marine industry in Canada has made an effort to recruit people who’ve historically been underrepresented, such as women and Indigenous people. Millions of dollars in federal funding since 2019, through the Oceans Protection Plan, have gone to marine training institutions to reduce barriers to training and employment for these populations.
BC Ferries is not immune to the demographic problems facing the industry. More than 1,000 of the company’s 4,000 ship-board employees are over the age of 55, engineers are working into their 70s, and more than 900 employees have been on the job for more than 25 years, according to BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union president Eric McNeely.
Across the industry, the pandemic has made it harder to recruit and retain seafarers. During the initial lockdowns and border closures, about 400,000 mariners were stranded on their ships at the end of their contracts, unable to be relieved by new crew members.
The global shipping trade publication TradeWinds reported in October that a “growing number of seafarers are quitting after becoming disenchanted with life at sea during the pandemic.”
In the merchant fleet, there’s a shortfall of 26,240 certified officers, according to the 2021 Seafarer Workforce Report, published by the International Chamber of Shipping and the shipping organization BIMCO. The report predicts that without significant advancements in training and recruitment, the shortfall will grow to 89,510 by 2026.
Licensed mariners’ skills are applicable to a variety of vessels. Officers and engineers can work on boat carriers, container ships, tankers, passenger ships, and Coast Guard vessels.
Despite the United Nations designating mariners as essential workers, a large-scale mobilization of retired mariners returning to work doesn’t seem likely on the scale that brought former doctors and nurses back to fight the pandemic. “I think this industry would like to see seafarers putting up their hand to return to the industry,” a spokesperson for International Transport Workers’ Federation says, “but from a trade union perspective until the industry sorts out the way that it treats seafarers and until governments treat seafarers with respect enough to give them hospitalization and the ability to get home when they finish a contract, then we don't have high hopes that seafarers will really consider this industry a viable career option again.”
Liebmann, however, says that conditions for seafarers have been improving. With more jobs than qualified applicants, seafarers can be choosy when it comes to employers. In response, many companies are offering increased wages and shorter contracts in an effort to appeal to those who might be averse to spending long stretches at sea. Companies are also offering better rotations, according to Liebmann—for example, giving mariners a day off for each day they work instead of the older model of a day off for every two on the job.
“There wasn't previously much support for people that had family lives or people that didn't come from a background where they had supports,” Liebmann says. “But that is getting better in a hurry.”
Still, critics say that governments and companies could be doing more to recruit and retain mariners, including by alleviating the financial burden of training and certificate advancement.
Expensive and onerous training requirements have contributed to shortages in the officer class, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation. In many countries, especially those in the Global South, which provides the bulk of unlicensed labour for international shipping companies, people who want to advance in their careers have to take out sizable student loans or travel far from their communities for training and rent accommodations.
The expense can be a deterrent in Canada too.
McNeely says a one-week leadership course, required by Transport Canada to advance to a 4th-class engineer position, set him back $3,000, as he had to cover his own tuition and travel expenses and did not receive paid time off.
In its Performance & Sustainability Report for fiscal year 2020-2021, BC Ferries said it “provides employees with the knowledge and potential to move through the organization in accordance with their skills, interests, and personal career goals” and cited succession planning as “a key focus” of the company.
The ship’s officer who wrote to Capital Daily noted that while BC Ferries is now “actively encouraging and supporting career development through financial aid and mentorship,” accreditation can take many years. “If they would have implemented these career development programs more aggressively five or ten years ago,” he wrote, “there would likely be more licensed officers available today.”
It’s not as if the company had no warning.
As far back as 1979, the International Maritime Organization was projecting shortages of certificate holders in the marine navigation fields, according to retired BC Ferries mariner and former union official Trevor Oram, who says he brought up concerns about the projected shortages to managers at BC Ferries, which was then a Crown corporation. “The corporation’s position was that it was such a fabulous place to work, that it would just take from the international maritime trade and grab the certificates that were out there floating around but developed by other organizations,” he says. “That struck me as unethical. So we lobbied and suggested very strongly that they institute some training programs, some apprenticeship programs.”
Out of those discussions, and discussions with the towboat industry, BC Ferries created an apprenticeship program for marine engineers. “My understanding is that said program was discontinued a few years later,” retired chief engineer and union official Eduardo Muñoz told Capital Daily in an email.
No deck apprenticeship programs were developed, though in 1987 the corporation announced that a “limited number” of deck officers could apply for an education leave so they could work toward obtaining advanced certificates.
The warnings continued. In 1992, a human resources study looked at the Canadian marine transportation industry and projected a skills shortage. BC Ferries and the BC Ferry and Marine Workers' Union participated in that study.
Four years later, a council of senior chief engineers at BC Ferries sounded the alarm to leadership about staffing issues, preparing a report that detailed its concerns.
McNeely says the final version of the report has been lost, though he shared a draft copy of it with Capital Daily. It referenced what was already a worldwide shortage of ship’s officers, pointed out that BC Ferries’ chief engineers were mostly in their 50s and 60s, and warned that there was no system in place to ensure that people would be trained for future vacancies. “It is the opinion of the author that it is almost too late and we are doing too little to ensure an ordered transition from one generation to the next,” the report said.
It’s unclear how much of the draft ended up in the report’s final version, but McNeely says the final report prompted BC Ferries to create an in-house development program to train people for engineering and deck positions. The company began building its capacity, and many of the company’s female chief engineers and officers came through that program, McNeely says.
The program, however, was short-lived. In the early 2000s, when BC Ferries became a private company, its focus shifted from internal development (investing in employees’ career trajectories) to recruitment (hiring employees pre-baked). In 2008, the company began offering employees $2,500 for referring licensed officers who went on to get hired.
This “instant gratification” approach led to the recruitment of people who’d known from a young age that they wanted to be mariners and who’d followed a straight career trajectory, leading to a less diverse workforce, according to McNeely. It also failed to create a solid succession plan for the company’s aging mariners.
BC Ferries employees could retire at 55, which, according to an internal document from the time, made “succession planning more difficult as employees have the opportunity to retire much earlier and with limited notice.” Succession was “further complicated” by “cumbersome posting/certification system relative to our numerous locations, some of which are becoming less attractive to Officers and potential recruits.”
In 2008, a management consulting firm prepared a situational analysis of the Canadian maritime industry for Human Resources and Social Development Canada. Previous studies, according to the firm’s report, already had shown “alarming labour shortages” across the industry and identified the “lack of a comprehensive, systemic, cohesive approach” to addressing the skills deficit. A negative public perception of marine industry careers impeded recruitment, according to the report, and the high costs associated with certification requirements, a lack of flexible course scheduling, and a lack of consistency in training funding across provincial and territorial jurisdictions impeded training and career advancement.
The report couldn’t have made the urgency of the situation more clear: it described a “burning platform situation vis-à-vis human resources in the Canadian marine industry,” explaining that such a situation occurs “when maintaining the present course of action or inaction is even more problematic with every passing day.”
Among its recommendations, the consulting firm called upon the industry and employers to “address the problematic issue of training funding.”
In the years following the report, McNeely says, efforts turned toward equivalency certification and streamlining the process of bringing foreign mariners into Canadian waters, rather than “investing domestically in existing mariners or developing mariners in Canada.”
Certification requirements have also changed. “It's harder than it was in 2008 to become certified,” he says.
Today, mariners in Canada looking to upgrade their skills might be able to benefit from labour market development agreements between the provinces and territories and the federal government. But it depends on where they work.
Because BC Ferries receives substantial government funding, it isn’t eligible for BC’s Employer Training Grant Program. The program, funded by the federal government through the Workforce Development Agreement, addresses provincial labour market needs by reimbursing employers up to $300,000 per year for skills training.
While other companies give employees paid time off for career-advancement opportunities and then reimburse them for tuition once they complete a course, McNeely says, BC Ferries offers “piecemeal funding” to employees who want to advance their certifications and move up the career ladder, enabling them to take a course here or there but failing to help mariners advance their careers in a timely way. Not all employees have access to the courses or funding, he says.
Like Oram, other retired mariners recall urging BC Ferries to create career-development programs. “I remember us telling the corporation in negotiations light years ago that they should be providing a proper training program so that people could move up the ladder from within the company,” a retired mate recently posted on the Facebook group for BC Ferries Alumni. “And the line from Labour relations was ‘we can always hire what we need from offshore.’ Oops!!”
“I remember the same,” a retired captain responded. “I too promoted in-house training but it fell on deaf ears.”
That captain elaborated on his comment in an email to Capital Daily. “As a Senior level Manager, I had Junior Officers come to me to ask if I could support their education to obtain higher certification so they could move forward to becoming a ship’s Captain,” he wrote. “My hands were completely tied as funds, and more importantly, the Corporate philosophy was to import these certified staff as opposed to train our own in-house employees. I spoke a number of times at management meetings about the error of this type of thinking, but was ignored. Wasn’t the flavour of the day and now we see the fruits of that type of policy implementation.”
While BC Ferries has implemented a number of career-advancement initiatives over the years, Muñoz said in his email, “generally speaking they have been insufficient and many of them have been implemented too late. Inter-departmental disagreements within BC Ferries, or lack of consensus between BC Ferries and the Union, were also a reason for some of these initiatives not to be fully implemented or even not to be implemented at all.” In 2010, BC Ferries received permission to remove 161 senior officers from the union—a move that drove some to leave the company or retire early and others to move into jobs below their qualifications, experience, and certificate level. The Tyee later reported that the exclusion process led to staffing challenges and a shortage of engineers with a second-class motor ticket.
McNeely says the union is currently in discussions with BC Ferries about creating and funding cadet and apprenticeship programs. Ultimately, he says, employers should look beyond their own needs and do what they can to support a robust marine industry on the west coast. The goal should be to build mariners, not employees, he says.
Last year, the federal government announced plans to develop a “Blue Economy Strategy,” envisioning a pandemic recovery and future tied to the growth, modernization, and innovation of the ocean sectors—everything from aquaculture to commercial fisheries and from marine transport to ocean technology. The strategy aims to integrate economic growth and middle-class jobs with ocean conservation and climate action.
“[W]e are building a plan to get more Canadians working on and in the water,” Bernadette Jordan, then-minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, wrote in the forward to a 50-page engagement paper soliciting public input on how to move the country toward a sustainable blue economy.
One of the challenges noted in the paper: the “existing and anticipated labour shortages.”
More than 1,600 Canadians answered the ministry’s call for feedback. Among them were representatives from shipping companies and coastal pilot and seafarer associations and unions. In roundtable discussions and written submissions, they detailed workforce challenges and proposed solutions. Among their comments: “Capacity and expertise in marine transportation is the lowest that it has been in 30 years…”
The ministry reported back on what it had gleaned from public engagement in mid-March, noting the marine transport sector’s aging workforce and the need to “enable faster, viable and more affordable career advancement of deckhands to mates, and mates to captains.”
The mariner shortage remains well known by those in a position to address it. And the impact of it is continuing to be felt by the public. Last week, in what is starting to seem like a new normal, BC Ferries announced further scheduling adjustments, extending the service changes it had made to three routes in late January because of unresolved crewing challenges.
-With files from Jimmy Thomson